Book review: Dead Wake by Erik Larson

The Lusitania sank 100 years ago in May.

The Lusitania sank 100 years ago in May.

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AN act of ‘frightfullness’ that changed the course of history, Janet Maslin reviews Erik Larson’s new book about the sinking of the Lusitania

Dead Wake: The Last Crossing Of The Lusitania

Erik Larson

Doubleday, £20

This May is the 100th anniversary of the attack on the great British ocean liner Lusitania by a German submarine, and there’ll be no shortage of books about it. But the one that gains the most attention is guaranteed to be Erik Larson’s Dead Wake, because the author is an old hand at treating nonfiction like high drama. As he demonstrated with In The Garden Of Beasts and The Devil In The White City, he knows how to pick details that have maximum soapy potential and then churn them until they foam.

Would he be writing about the Lusitania if the anniversary were not imminent? To its credit, Dead Wake doesn’t read that way. This does not seem like an opportunistic book, or a cobbled-together clip job full of previously known information. There can’t be many new sources to draw on 100 years after the fact, but Larson has an eye for haunting, unexploited detail. He points out that one passenger carried a gold seal with the Latin motto “Tuta Tenebo,” or “I will keep you safe.” Wrong words, wrong ship.

As he freely admits, Larson didn’t know much about the Lusitania when he embarked on this project. A lot of people think “shipwreck = Titanic” and stop there. But these two tragedies at sea had very different ramifications. The sinking of the Titanic in April 1912 shattered the idea that huge ocean liners were invulnerable. The torpedoing of the Lusitania in May 1915 made it clear that sinking passenger ships could occur as acts of war.

There had been instances of what was then called “frightfulness,” a more polite name for terrorism, preceding the Lusitania attack. Walther Schwieger, commander of the submarine U-20 and a major figure in Larson’s book, had already taken a shot at a hospital ship without qualms. But the Lusitania was a ship carrying nearly 2,000 people, including Americans, at a time when the US had not entered the First World War. Larson has little trouble stitching all this together. He has made his reputation on cliffhanger phrasings like: “Schwieger again took the periscope. What he saw now shocked even him.” And he often throws in anecdotes simply because they’re colourful, not because they advance any central narrative. Dead Wake includes the story of a crew member painting the underside of a lifeboat in a colour called “crab fat” when he sees the feet of two little rich girls and their nanny approach. One girl wants to help. The only follow-up on this encounter is news of what happens to the girl after the ship goes down.

In comparison with another new book, Lusitania by Greg King and Penny Wilson, Larson’s is less gossipy but much more illuminating. Both books mention a boy who survived the voyage, but only Larson knows that the teenager was quarantined because he had measles; he escaped only because the ship was so badly damaged that the door that confined him didn’t close any more.

Both mention the book dealer Charles Lauriat, who later wrote a memoir. But it’s Larson who goes into the details of Lauriat’s rare book business and the fact that he was carrying Charles Dickens’ own copy of A Christmas Carol, with Dickens’ notes about suing “literary pirates” scribbled in it. Here was one of the worst cases of a passenger having to decide what to let go down with the ship, but Lauriat’s final decision is worth knowing about.

Larson is also suspenseful about the details of naval warfare, which is so crucial to this story. The capabilities of both the U-20 and the Lusitania are thoroughly explained, and by the time of their confrontation the sub has lost its communications system and is operating blind. Fog prevailed during most of the Lusitania’s voyage. And had it not lifted just before the two vessels met, we might be living with an alternate version of history.

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